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Research Social Sciences

What does a Pandemic mean for the social sciences?

A few months ago, I had the privilege of chatting with a student of public policy at one of the leading universities in the UK for science and disease. He was telling me about the postgraduate course he was on, and how public policy is a discipline based purely on science. I thought briefly, and then double checked. You don’t study anything resembling a social science at all then? No ethics, no law, no economics, for example? No no, public policy, he assured me, is based solely on scientific evidence.

I shelved my doubts and put any skepticism down to my natural bias as a social scientist and my tendency to argue for the wider understanding and valuing of the social sciences in any scenario.

And then COVID-19 happened. Of course, this is a scientific conundrum, and scientists, chemists, biologists, immunologists, epidemiologists, mathematicians, and the like are working together globally like never before to test, trial, model, and to keep the rest of us as safe as possible.

But then a strange thing happened. A trend appeared in the Covid19-related deaths, which, frustratingly has been inadequately recorded by the official statistics, but which is pretty plain to see on any photograph wall of “victims”. Deaths of those from a BAME, or those from a black or minority ethic background, exceed the numbers expected if these things were to be in proportion to the population. So what is going on?

A recent paper in The Lancet identified the issues surrounding ethnicity, stating “Ethnicity is a complex entity composed of genetic make-up, social constructs, cultural identity, and behavioural patterns.2 Ethnic classification systems have limitations but have been used to explore genetic and other population differences. Individuals from different ethnic backgrounds vary in behaviours, comorbidities, immune profiles, and risk of infection, as exemplified by the increased morbidity and mortality in black and minority ethnic (BME) communities in previous pandemics.” This can be represented in the following chart:

From Pareek et al, “Ethnicity and COVID-19: an urgent public health research priority”, available at https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30922-3/fulltext

This “complex entity” of “ethnicity” straddles the natural and social sciences as well as the arts and humanities, and there has never before been such a huge need for the disciplines to work together. Could there be any correlation between being a front-line worker and BAME? Is there any truth in the statements that those from a minority ethnic background are more likely to live with extended family in smaller, more cramped housing? Or is the answer down to genetic susceptibility to co-morbidities? The research here is, surprisingly, still in its infancy, although projects like the UNESCO dialogue offer hope that society may be forced to confront the inequalities that COVID-19 has laid bare.

Once again, we are not all in this together. The virus is not a great leveller, and we are not all suffering equally. The statistics bear this out in black and white. But science can only carry us so far down the road investigating this. The rest must be in combination with the insights of lawyers, economics, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and geographers, as well as historians, ethnographers, artists, musicians and – well, as much of society as possible if we really want a representative dialogue. And this means hearing voices that are usually silenced by inequality and minimised by power imbalances.

Interestingly, Germany may be already setting off down this road, enlisting scholars in the Arts and Humanities in that country to help establish a new normal and to ask how society can make sense of the changes. How can we forge meaningful relationships from a “socially-distant” 2 metres? And what might a post-COVID-19 society look like? Sound like? Behave like? Which social values and interests will be prioritised? These are questions that will require the full range of inputs, styles and learning from across the academy.

What is the new normal? And how do we figure out how to get there? This is something that will require the close cooperation of all disciplines.

Despite the fact that we are facing a viral enemy, arguably we have never needed interdisciplinary research more, specifically combining insights from the social sciences, arts and humanities to interpret, process, disseminate and enhance understanding of the work of the natural sciences. COVID-19 has highlighted inequalities that society had previously been able to ignore. The role of the social sciences, arts and humanities in elevating those voices and interests will be critical not only to the successful implementation of vaccines and treatments (community dialogue and involvement is essential for engagement with health services), but for the reconsideration of social priorities and equality more generally.

Categories
Development economics Research

What if … we all worked together?

In other words, “why science does not have all the answers… and why it needs to work with the social scienes for maximum impact”.

This post starts from the saying that a scientist can tell you how to clone a human being, but a social scientist can tell you why this might not be a good idea… or then how to regulate the technology and maximise social benefit if you’re determined to go ahead.

Similarly, I was watching BBC’s “Pandemic” on BBC4 with Dr Hannah Fry, which aired last week. This asked how vulnerable we might be to a viral infection that had decided to turn into a global pandemic. They took a group of mathematicians and modelled the infection rates of the virus across a small town in the south of England. The results were, frankly, worrying. A pandemic is coming. The questions relate to how prepared we are.

The approaches were entirely scientific, and consisted of mathematicians and virologists wondering how social interactions could spread a virus. It did occur to me that if they had included a social scientist on the panel, someone could have pointed out that scale, depth and nature of social interactions have actually been the subject of social science research for decades.

The team used smart phone GPS tracking to analyse social interactions and deduce the likelihood of infection from these.

The results of the Pandemic experiment revealed the existence of some so-called super-spreaders of infection. These were generally high-profile individuals in the community – people who ran local businesses or who spent time in cafes or busy hubs of social interaction. This led to the suggestion that vaccinations could be targeted at super-spreaders for maximum impact. This was certainly an impressive result of the experiment and hugely important if we are to respond effectively to a super-virulent strain of flu, for example (the experiment assumed possible infection from 20 metres away).

But, instead of focusing solely on science, what could the results achieve if we combined insights from the social sciences to change behaviour as well as immunity?

As we know, you can present people with all the facts in the world, and they will fail to change their behaviour accordingly. Vaccinations, the climate emergency, and so many other examples show that presenting people with “the cold, hard facts” will change nothing. There’s an side point to be mentioned here about the devaluing of information through the spread of “fake news”, but since the 1970s psychologists have demonstrated that “reasonable-seeming people can be completely irrational”. For a review of the main studies in this area and why reason and confirmation bias could actually be helpful from a social perspective, see this post in The New Yorker. Applying this to cognitive bias that can be dangerous for the belief-holder, the Gormans have analysed how we can tackle these mistaken thoughts.

On the other hand, research has shown that “nudges” and insights from social science can have as much, if not more impact than financial incentives. The Behavioural Insights Team, founded on Sunstein and Thaler’s “Nudge”, published in 2008, looks at opportunities to shift the context in which people make decisions, hopefully pushing them towards “the correct” choice. In the case of improving our diets, or reducing knife crime, this is obviously a good thing. But what does this mean for epidemiology, virology, and pandemic response?

What could we achieve if we combined the insights of the natural and social sciences? The BBC Pandemic experiment into how viruses infect a community are insightful. But only when they are combined with the insights of the social sciences to actually translate this into real human behavioural changes that could change lives.

For example, if we want people to wash their hands for 20 seconds using soap, telling them about how they are reducing abstract infection rates will have little impact. “Nudges” on the other hand, like installing timers next to taps, singing happy birthday twice, or better still stopping water-saving taps that cut off water after 3 seconds, will have far greater impact. Other nudges that could encourage people to wash their hands are reminders that “everyone else does”, and countdowns near taps that tick red until 20 seconds are up – potentially showing on a smart screen how many bacteria are left on the subjects’ hands… these are just suggestions. But imagine what we could achieve if we combined science and social science insights. We would be unstoppable!